The RPS Verdict: The Witcher 2
It feels like a long time since Jim delivered his thoughts on The Witcher 2, and we've all meaning to come back to it. Now Jim, Richard, and Kieron get together to compare considered opinions (and bedpost notches) on one of the most important games of the year. There are many, many spoilers ahead.
Jim: The Witcher 2: this year's witchiest RPG has been played by we three men, and now those men aim to discuss it. Kieron, would you like to tell us what you think The Witcher 2 is?
Kieron: The Witcher 2 is a role-playing game, of course, you big ninny, sequel to the successful previous game, it's a single-character game - so you only control Mr Witcher. But it's main "things" are the moral tone (generally dubious) and the wide available choices (generally general).
Jim: What about that dude in the RPS comments who says that anything that isn't a turn-based RPG from 1987 isn't an RPG?
Kieron: That guy in the comments thread is basically a spam-bot from RPG codex. It's not a real person.
Jim: That makes sense.
Richard: Anyone who says that clearly used Intelligence as their dump stat. Yeah. You just got +2 burned...
Kieron: Anyway - Jim liked it. Richard, in your review for another place liked it. Guess what I thought of it?
Richard: Best platform game ever?
Kieron: After Rainbow Islands, totally. Actually, as an aside, it reminded me as some interesting half-way place between the western PC game aesthetic and Zelda.
Jim: It's not as open as Zelda.
Kieron: Yeah, totally not. But with various bits and pieces plugged in. (The closest there's ever been to PC-zelda, of course, was the 57th best game ever.)
Jim: But it is single character like Zelda. Let's talking about that single character thing - I actually prefer that in this kind of game. I find managing parties a bit tedious.
Richard: I see The Witcher 2 as simultaneously a great example of what can happen when a company has complete creative freedom, and what can go horribly wrong. It's really interesting like that.
Kieron: I'll agree with Richard there.
Richard: The world, the attitude, some of the asides... no game from, say, Bioware, is likely to do that.
Kieron: And while I like party based RPGs, I also think the Witcher 2 works brilliantly with its single class. It goes deep into WHAT IS A WITCHER. And puts you in his splendid leather boots. Magic, multiple swords, alchemy, monster studying, being sterile and having sex with folks, etc.
Richard: At the same time, someone really should have been there to say "No, you WILL have a proper tutorial. You WILL explain this. You will NOT expect everyone to have read seventy books - in Polish - to understand the big picture properly."
Kieron: Oh, man, Richard. Let's come back to the story and its telling. I've got lots to talk about there. But on mechanics...
Richard: I think they're connected. You're not just playing some guy, you're a Witcher. To them, that's as obvious as being, say, a Jedi. But it's not. And there's that instant disconnect with the game where you don't really know what you're meant to be doing. A Jedi for instance is a melee fighter with some magic. But is Geralt? The game doesn't tell you properly.
Jim: Well, the very basics of the thing are that there is no tutorial and it's too hard at the start, even post-patch. Or perhaps not too hard at the start, but significantly harder than at the end, where you are clearing a sky full of harpies in a single sword swish
Richard: The problem with the difficulty curve is that Geralt is useless at the start. Most of the early skills aren't about getting better, they're about not being crap. Especially the backstab damage.
Kieron: Yeah - it's both too hard, and also too hard if you know the Witcher and know "Yeah, I should be doing some magic".
Richard: You think you're playing badly, but you're just utterly gimped.
Jim: Yes, the sword and melee tree is uncrapifying the character.
Richard: Similarly, it doesn't make it clear just how important the timing is. If you've got a bad frame rate, you're just going to die. Period.
Jim: It does make me think that CD Projekt were too close to it. It feels like one of those games where the developer has been playing it for four years and thinks that the process of it is obvious.
Richard: Oh, god. No 'feels' about it. I was at a preview event and had the Senior Producer (nice guy, don't get me wrong) practically playing the game over my shoulder. Use the medallion here, walk down that road, use a bomb here, go right...
Kieron: Don't start me on the one-button leap attack, which got me into all sorts of trouble.
Richard: There were several moments where I was saying things like 'But why am I going north when it looks like I have to go south', or 'why did I just fail this mission?' and the answer was very obviously 'We didn't think of that because we know what to do.' And in the full game, it was such a pain. So many quests badly explained or map pins in the wrong place...
Jim: So the start of it is awkward, because it's frustrating, but once you hit your stride, so does the game - by the middle of chapter one I was revelling in it (kraken fight aside).
Kieron: Heh. I was about to mention the Kraken fight. But I realised we've been very down so far, and I didn't want to go down that particularly squid-fucker hole.
Richard: I loved the game, don't get me wrong, but it sorely needed more of the dreaded focus groups to say "This doesn't work." The Kraken fight is... ugh... All the bosses are ugh, really.
Kieron: Really, what I came away from was "making an action game is much harder than PC devs realise". There's an implicit arrogance there. I mean, it's possible they hired someone with experience of something a little more tactile, but it doesn't come across.
Richard: I think it's more that they made a system that made sense to them, and played it so much that they became blind.
Jim: That's interesting though, isn't it? That every single review was able to pin-point the main problem, which was that the combat was no fluid enough for the kind of experience they were trying to emulate. Yet it still arrived like that.
Richard: You see it in a lot of the responses. Anyone who says they found it hard just gets beaten up by fans saying they suck.
Richard: I suspect a lot of arguments were crushed with some variant of "We're for REAL gamers." REAL gamers won't mind. REAL gamers will understand.
Kieron: The flip of the power thing is that at the end, when you are that powerful, the game falls apart because it's so easy.
Richard: At the end? Try the end of the first act.
Kieron: To the point where I get to even a slightly more challenging fight my skills have totally atrophied. And I have to remember all those other abilities you're meant to be using.
Jim: Okay, so let's turn that on its head: why does it have fans so turned on and rabid about it?
Richard: The thing is, I didn't care about the combat being easy. What I loved was the other stuff, with the characters and the reactive quests. Something as simple as a character butting into an unrelated fist-fight to say "Oi! Remember what you did! I've been waiting for this..." does so much to make me like an RPG.
Kieron: Even with the combat's slide into easiness, it manages a certain spectacular charm which few RPGs even dream of. Which I appreciate.
Richard: It also makes sense. You're supposed to be awesome. They outright say it in Act 2 - a Witcher has no excuse not to be the toughest guy around. They fight MONSTERS.
Richard: I think it's just notable that because the game is so political, you don't really do that much monster-fighting after Act 1. At least, not the silver-sword type.
Kieron: Well, Richard, *man* is the real monster.
Richard: I'm still voting for the demon farm equipment like things.
Jim: Heh. Okay, what about that sequence at the end of chapter two, on the supernatural battlefield. I found that incredible. /That/ was monsters.
Kieron: This is also true.
Richard: It's still mostly against ghost-men. Until the end. But it's still an awesome sequence.
Jim: Are ghost men still men?
Richard: I vote yes. You racist.
Kieron: The thing is, while you fight monsters, it's not a game about being a Witcher. It's a game where being a Witcher is useful because of the enormous skillset they bring to bear. You kill shitloads of monsters to actually complete relatively "standard" RPG quests, with its own grim-twist. But you're not normally there to just kill the monsters.
Richard: Part of the trouble I had, especially when the ending collapses into irrelevance, is that for the most part it's not really *about* very much at all. Lots of stuff happens, but there's no big quest or anything.
Jim: Yes, you play a Witcher caught up larger things. The monster hunting is incidental, which is a shame in some ways. And then suddenly the main assassination plot is incidental too, which is odd...
Kieron: It is a bit.
Richard: Geralt is there. But even his big plot kinda fizzles in Act 2 when Henselt says "Oh, we have bigger problems now."
Kieron: The problem - which Richard touches on - is that it's a game which is fundamentally political and never actually does a very good job at explaining the set up.
Richard: And it's politics of a kingdom that we just don't know. If you've read the books, you're fine.
Richard: If you haven't, who is Niflgaard? Who is Redania? Where are these places?
Jim: Yes, even the in-game map has the names in
cyrllic glagolitic, so English-installs like me can't see which nation is which.
Kieron: I mean... I was actually watching the Game of Thrones when I was playing through this and that does a lot of work to try and create the relationship between the places. And coming to the Witcher, I found myself thinking "I wish they had tried even a few of the basic set-ups there to create the idea". I actually did try with the Journal - reading all the kings, trying to map the relationship. But it's just not *there*.
Richard: In my game, the big debate was whether I should trust Redania. I'd never even HEARD of Redania. Is that the local equivalent of Nazi Germany or Hawaii? I never felt I had enough information, even factoring in the Journal.
Jim: But then isn't a more sophisticated plot and game world, like one that deals with complex lusty politics, actually what we are implicating every time we attack a weak fantasy quest offering? Don't we bemoan exposition?
Richard: Yes, but I'd argue Dragon Age did it more successfully. Not necesarily BETTER on a technical level, but at least I understood the stakes, the people, etc.
Jim: CD Projket were *trying* to deliver what we ask for, even if it didn't arrive.
Kieron: And yes, Jim. But the problem is if you try and do this stuff you have to bring more skill to bear on the implication.
Richard: In Dragon Age, if I died, the world is gone. In The Witcher 2... I could walk away whenever I like.
Kieron: Richard - I don't think that's a problem. Sorry - I'm sort of thinking what I actually meant by that. But I'm going to leave it hanging.
Richard: It's not necessarily a problem, but it reminded me of an issue I had with Far Cry 2. The intro is the Jackal saying "You've failed, go home." To which my response was "You make a good point."
Jim: Okay, let's change track slightly: the thing that impressed me most about the game was the bifurcation of the plot in Act 2 - there are genuinely two big threads of game there, quite different.
Kieron: Yeah, there were. Richard - which way did you go?
Richard: The scale of it is just ridiculous. In a good way. As before, it's something NOBODY else would go near. I went with Roche, because I didn't trust Iorveth as far as I could throw him. Whereas I figured Roche, away from his main power base, would be easier to deal with.
Kieron: He's an elf. You could throw him quite a long way.
Richard: Yeah, but he'd keep *talking*. And I can never remember how to spell Scoia'tael, which would be a pain if I had to make any victory T-Shirts after we won.
Jim: I like Iorverth, the human bored me. He seemed indignant and at the same time a pushover.
Richard: For me, part of it was that Geralt had some history with Roche.
Kieron: I actually liked them both, but went with Ioverth as I thought Roche would be fine without me and I could make more difference with the Elf. And also hearing that this Virgin woman was leading his army. And I thought "not for long", in a true Witcher fashion.
Jim: Heh. You felt like you owed him, Richard?
Richard: More that I felt I understood him, even if I didn't agree. He'd already bent the rules to help Geralt, for instance.
Kieron: I'll admit, he had a better hat.
Richard: And the interactions in the town were on a "I don't agree with you on a lot of things, but at least I know how you think."
Richard: Unlike for instance, the guy who ran Flotsam, who was a liar and a git.
Kieron: And bald. You can't trust baldies.
Richard: Iorveth does however have the best End of Act 1 stuff. I love the bit where you escort him through the town. And he berates you for NOT letting the guards kick the shit out of him, since it's damaging the illusion.
Kieron: How does the second act work if you go with hat-man?
Richard: For starters, they redecorate the town. Put up bunting and have a party. Which is one of those awesome little details I really loved.
Jim: Right, the town is on fire if you choose Iorveth.
Richard: After that, you work with Roche to take down the mayor guy, some bad stuff goes down in his house with Ves and another woman he's kidnapped, and then you more or less leave by boat as before. But you end up at another king's camp instead of Vergen. Either of the two paths would be awesome if they were the only option.
Kieron: That's what I presumed. And, yes, that's an incredible effort.
Richard: And it's in the details. Redecorating the town twice, to burn it and make it a celebration. The subquests. Each path has its own 'Witcher' quest for instance. A Succubus on the Iorveth path, ghosts on the Roche one.
Kieron: Overambitious, I suspect, for the story they had to tell as well - which is why Act 3 and the prologue fail.
Richard: I... quite like the prologue.
Kieron: Er... epilogue
Richard: It has issues, but it got me in the mood. Aaah! True story about when I reviewed The Witcher 2:
Kieron: (But imagining what that would have been like if they had worked out a story that would fit inside their 3 acts could have been spectacular. As it is, it's merely pretty awesome.)
Richard: I was playing it a couple of weeks before release, but I had the deadline coming up. I'd been playing solidly, and I pinged my editor to say "I'm (for the most part) loving this game, but I don't see how I can possibly finish it by Monday." Literally two or so hours later: "It just ended." Opening the Journal in Act 3 to be told "Here is where the story of the Assassins of Kings came to an end..." is... what? You're kidding? I thought I was... halfway through at most! You mean "So, you want a boss fight?" "Nah." "Okay, we're cool."
Kieron: I was especially amused by the final conversation with Letho. "So - any questions?" "Nope" "Wanna fight?" "nope" "Bye!" "ooh - a ladybird" vs "So - any questions?" "Nope" "Wanna fight?" "yup" FIGHT! WIN! "ooh - a ladybird"
Richard: One of the complaints I had after the review was that I only saw one ending and maybe the others were awesome. No. Just... no.
Jim: The final act was an intermission, wasn't it? It was the failing of the movie that doesn't actually end, but simply sets up the sequel.
Richard: I saw about four of endings, and the main difference was that in one of them, Roche changed his shirt.
Kieron: I liked how Geralt was VERY INTERESTED IN A LADYBIRD
Richard: Well, he always did like the ladies...
Kieron: But he let it go free. Oh, Geralt, you sweetie. I admit, I was expecting him to kill the ladybird.
Richard: I honestly thought the final act was halfway through the story. So much stuff is set up or seems to explode, I couldn't believe it when the words 'Epilogue' appeared. But I think it's important to reinforce that most of my bitching about the game is disappointment that it let itself down. And I wouldn't feel that if I hadn't had a great, great time with so much of it. The choices, the character writing, the graphics - even the feel of the combat when you level out of being shit - are just brilliant.
Richard: I love that it was an RPG that made me actually *think* about my choices, and feel like it gave a shit what I chose, unlike DA2's even worse epilogue sections.
Kieron: And it's brilliant to see a large budget RPG which *isn't* made by a developer who's actually being limited by their 15-year experience by now.
Jim: Yes, i was sort of amazed when *big* consequences played out. It's special in just that way. I also liked the troll.
Richard: And all the little details, from the tattoo gag to the call-backs, made it feel like anything *might* be bigger than it seemed.
Kieron: I liked the troll too! I liked when they turned up at the Siege.
Richard: The henpecked troll or the drunk troll?
Richard: What I love is that for all its budget, CDP really, really gets the importance of the smaller-scale moments. Nobody honestly cares about a war in an RPG. They care about the effect of the characters they've grown to love and hate. And every little detail...
Jim: Sometimes I feel like it's really down to detail in terms of what wins us over in games. The bigger stuff almost doesn't matter if the world is spilling over with bits and pieces to pore over and discuss. The fact that bits of The Witcher 2 feel like discovery, whether or not they really are, totally captured me. It managed elements of life within its scenes, it had things going on, the world was static but nevertheless full of action and events. I mean detail matters in a shooter, but in an RPG it's literally life or death.
Richard: You guys didn't do the Roche quest, right?
Richard: Okay. This isn't a big plot spoiler, but it's something I liked. One of the quests in Henselt's camp is to have a load of arena fights with various guards, all of which are pretty damn easy by this point in the game. At first, your success amuses everyone, but then it starts getting embarassing. So, Ves (from the intro) puts herself forward as your next opponent, and the game makes it clear how much she wants to win their respect. You have the option to throw that fight. But if you don't, she's quick to tell you how grateful she is for that, that you actually took her *seriously* as a fighter. And then, this being the Witcher, there can be sexy-time. But it's the bit before that that was just... yes. I really like these characters and this game.
Jim: Goddamn sexy-time...
Richard: In a way, The Witcher 2 reminded me a little of Hitman. You're the monkey-wrench in all these plans, if you choose to be.
Jim: I was the least sexed Witcher ever. Nil sex.
Richard: I'll actually defend the sexy-time stuff in The Witcher 2.
Kieron: Yeah, i'll defend it in the witcher 2
Jim: Oh I am not criticising it, I just didn't get any.
Kieron: And in the game?
Richard: Why do you think I played The Witcher 2? (sob) I thought it was pretty well handled, the scenes well scripted, and it took the time to make an emotional connection.
Jim: The only sex action I pursued was the elf in Chapter 1, and that was a trap.
Kieron: When Jim said he didn't sex anyone, I took it as my mission to try and sex as many people as turned up. So I had sex with seven.
Jim: I just don't play sexy.
Richard: But seriously. The one with Triss in Act 1 could have been awful, but I thought it fit their characters really well. I was then completely loyal, as far as the Quicksave button knows.
Richard: Although there's some really, really weird sex stuff with the other characters in Act 3...
Kieron: I missed all that. I was sort of rushing by that point.
Richard: One scene with Deathmold. Really. Was not expecting that...
Kieron: Can I say the one moment which actually yucked me out? The sorceress' eyes...
Jim: Yeah, there is some far out stuff. Oh God, yes, that was genuinely nasty.
Richard: A guy gets castrated on the other path.
Kieron: The sound-effects were the thing.
Richard: The Witcher 2 really does do squicky well. The concepts and the executions. Never too over the top, like many fantasy stories.
Kieron: We probably should be wrapping up.
Richard: So should Sile.
Richard: A one-woman war against the 'mature' rating. To wrap up, despite all my problems, I loved The Witcher 2 and I badly want a third game, right now. It really, really humiliates Dragon Age 2 especially, and while I think Skyrim will be great, it'll be in a different way.
Kieron: Actually - before we go, there is one thing I want to say. As in a quick topic: The bugs. Fuck me, it's a buggy messy at times and its UI needs a complete work-over. And the doors. The fucking doors.
Jim: Oh, God, the doors made no sense.
Richard: The doors are weird. So is the streaming technology.
Jim: They were tied to the animation, I think, like so much of the game. The animation dictated what could happen.
Kieron: (My favourite error was when I was dying at the same time as fighting the dragon at the end, but the cutscene cut in, I went through it, about 10 minutes of conversation and when it gave me proper control back in the prologue, my character just died.)
Jim: Okay, let's put our critical cards on the table: how will gaming history remember this game? I think it's going to be one of the great (skill-based, action-led) RPGs. A defining moment for the swords & conversation genre.
Richard: I don't think it'll stick in peoples' minds as well as the original Witcher, simply because of how original that game was. But I do think it's a far better game, and one that people like us will be referencing for years and years and years. But primarily on the story side, not as a game. It'll be "Remember the Act 2 split?" rather than "Remember how awesome the Aard sign is?"
Kieron: The Aard sign is pretty awesome!
Jim: Well Aard, i say.
Kieron: Basically, if you liked the Witcher, you'll love it. And if you had problems with the Witcher, you'll probably like it, as it's just generally a step up.
Richard: I so very, very, very badly want CDP to get more eyes on their next game. Not that it should be focus grouped to hell and back, but just to make sure someone has a bit of distance before it gets burned to disc. Or downloaded into our brains, if the development time of this one is anything to go by.
Kieron: I actually want them to be slightly less ambitious with the story. Which is a strange thing to wish for.
Richard: I honestly don't think ambition is the problem. I think they consider it a great finale. It just isn't.
Kieron: Really? They could have just done it around the Siege, and had as much detail as the game had, and it'd work.
Richard: And since John isn't here, I can add "Just like Dreamfall"
Kieron: A siege is meaningful. Meaning=emotion, and all that jazz.
Richard: It probably could, but I don't think that's the issue. Flotsam is the disposable bit, really.
Richard: I just think they gave us Acts 1-3 of a 5 act game.
Kieron: Yeah? Well, budget isn't going to get bigger, so better to make a plot that fits in 3 acts then. That's what I'm saying.
Richard: Or, maybe, 'don't make 2 act 2s' It's a cool feature, but they didn't need to do it. I'd have sacrificed one of those paths for a proper fourth act.
Kieron: And make another basically linear RPG? I think you're throwing the baby out.
Richard: You don't need two completely divergent paths for that. Look at Fallout. Or what Dragon Age 2 could have been, with its one location. For me, choices on their own aren't the exciting bit. I want to see results from them.
Jim: To be honest, as I was playing I'd imagined that Iorveth and Roche were interchangeable, before I realised there were actually two different paths. You could have done that and had real difference in the story, while reducing the needs to duplicated so much content.
Kieron: That's the thing - I think you're losing some of the strangeness by doing that. What is most interesting about it is that it's *different*.
Richard: It's different enough already. And most people will assume that Act 2 is mostly copy-and-paste anyway. Which it totally isn't.
Jim: But yes, the difference in that fork in the road is incredible. No one else dares do that. Any final words?
Richard: It's awesome. But it's the attitude, the world, etc that makes the game special. That's just a cherry on the cake. If you haven't played it yet, play it immediately. For all the bitching, it's at least 89% of awesomeness.
Kieron: Yeah, thumbs up, play it.
Richard: You will not see another RPG like it for a very, very long time.
Jim: Yes, it's the game I have to insist people play, even if they whinge about it being too hard to start with. (Like we did.)
Richard: Yeah. Hint: Aard to knockback enemies, Quen for shields, don't get hit from behind. After Level 7 or so, you'll never have trouble again. Oh, and sacrifice looks for framerate.
Kieron: And sex people with your albino penis.